The Great Dictator… but for whom?
Written for The Ecologist, published 11th June
What do academy schools, fracking and international trade negotiations have in common?
They're all part of the Conservative Government's agenda to roll back the ability of the public to question official policy, and to allow business interests to press ahead with their questionable economic projects unchallenged.
As Britain celebrates the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta in June 1215, an unprecedented dilution of democratic power, written into law under the last Con-Dem administration, has been enacted.
For example, in 2014 there was widespread public objection to the Government's 'care.data' scheme, which allows the use of NHS patient medical records by a range of private organisations. The ability of the NHS to pass data to companies, outside the normal controls of data protection law, had been given legal sanction under the Health and Social Care Act 2012 – which effectively privatized the health service.
With much fanfare, and an expressed will to protect 'patient choice', the Government granted an opt-out for those who did not want their sensitive personal medical data shared. Then in early 2015 it emerged that the opt-outs were being disregarded because NHS service contractors – essential to the Government's privatization plans – could not access NHS patient data under the terms of the opt-out.
The 'care.data' plan opt-outs had been a public relations smokescreen. Behind it the Government continued to purposefully pursue a wider ideological agenda – and of course ideology does not require objective evidence to validate its objectives.
In May 2015, the new Conservative Government outlined new proposals which will further restrict the public's rights to be consulted, to object, and to challenge actions by the state. These will constrain the public's rights to participate in and object to Government policy even further.
The Queen's Speech contained a list of proposed laws, the majority of which do not focus on making our society more inclusive. From imposing further restrictions on unions, to the mass collection of data, to redefining the term "extremist" to cover non-violent dissent – the focus of these new laws is on removing or diluting the public rights to review decisions, increasing the dictatorial power of the state.
One of the measures, based upon the shakiest of evidence, is the Education and Adoption Bill. This seeks to increase the number of academy schools – even where the parents or the governors of a school strongly object to the change.
On Wednesday 3rd June Education Secretary Nicky Morgan told the BBC's Today Programme that –
Parents of course have every right and should be very interested in their child’s education, but there also comes a point to say when the education is being held back, progress that children make is being held back due to legal processes and judicial reviews and appeals and actually I think what most parents want is their child to make progress...
If based on objectively measured evidence of 'progress', the Education Secretary would have an argument to press this case. That 'progress' is, however, questionable, and is not based upon clear evidence of improvements brought about by academy status.
As stated in the summary of the (Conservative chaired) Commons Education Select Committee's report published in January 2015 –
There is a complex relationship between attainment, autonomy, collaboration and accountability. Current evidence does not allow us to draw conclusions on whether academies in themselves are a positive force for change.
We saw this same over-riding of local concern over issues such as 'fracking' under the last Government.
What is less well understood are the subtle changes which have enabled the imposition of these policies – which will worsen as these new laws take effect. Little by little, they are eroding the body of British civil rights which have developed over the last seventy years.
This attack on the public's ability to keep a check on Government power was outlined by David Cameron in a speech to the CBI in November 2012. As his speech detailed, today we find that: public consultation has been cut; laws, such as the 'care.data' proposals, are being force through with little check on their impacts; and the public's rights to access the courts has been curtailed.
This will have a chilling effect on our democracy in future, even without the changes currently in the pipeline.
This last aspect – reducing our ability to access the courts – is perhaps the most damaging to our democratic process. Legal aid cuts have stripped many people of their basic human rights to access the justice system. Our ability as citizens to challenge decision-making directly, through judicial review, has also been deliberately weakened to give the Government greater power.
The last phase of that process, under the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015, was commenced just before the election. This changes ancient traditions – such as only having one magistrate presiding over cases instead of three. Other changes mean that rights to judicial review only apply to those with a direct interest in the issue, and under a range of limiting conditions.
Also, if a person 'crowd sources' the funding for a court case in order to get over the barrier of the high costs involved, then in future every one of the people providing a contribution will be personally liable for costs if the case fails.
Perhaps the most chilling issue in the pipeline is the much talked about 'extremism' legislation. The problem here, as outlined in the Home Secretary's speech to the Conservative Party conference in September 2014, is that the Government want to control "non-violent extremism".
How can 'non-violence' be considered extreme? At what point does advocating non-violence policy change become 'extreme'? At what point does the human right of 'free speech' become 'extremism' if it does not involve the use of or incitement to violence?
These are very dangerous ideas because the Government does not base its arguments upon clear objective criteria, but upon acts which "undermine British values". That is of course something that varies subjectively according to your political outlook and social background. With an increasingly illiberal, reactionary Government, this clash over "values" is critical to how these changes will be enacted in law.
In parallel to this, the ability to police 'non-violent extremism' will be augmented by the Government's updated 'snoopers charter'. Just as law-makers in the USA are beginning to let the post-11/9 surveillance powers lapse, in Britain the Government is paving the way for a new generation of computer-based 'big data' surveillance technologies to be created and deployed against the public.
In the modern world we no longer, as citizens, talk about 'civil liberties'. Instead today's civil liberties debate is often centred upon 'privacy' as the single exemplar of personal freedom. In many ways, in our technological society, 'privacy' has come to replace the concepts once described by 'liberty' – since it is the imposition of those technological oversight mechanisms which have the greatest impact upon our everyday lives.
The problem is participation in the modern 'wired' economy requires us to trade away our privacy, whether we like it or not. The Government's anti-extremism agenda also requires us to trade our personal privacy for alleged 'security' – even though the Government's existing policies are statistically far more threatening to our personal health and well-being than any combination of terror threats.
As a result, that negation of 'privacy' necessarily means a dilution of our traditional 'civil liberty'. From the privatization of the NHS and 'care.data', to the tightening grip of the 'security state', our privacy is being either ignored or diluted – in the name of greater administrative efficiency, or to enable anti-terror or extremism measures.
Given the increasing dominance of corporate interests in the financing of our political parties, what this inevitably means is enacting the diktats of the "1%" rather than policies which benefits everyone across society. That's because, under this new system, the "1%" are the only ones with money to access to the courts, and fund politicians, to protect their interests.
The Government's support for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), effectively dis-empowering the public's collective interest in favour of private interests, will exacerbate this process if it is enacted.
That situation is, of course, made far worse the recent reforms to our abilities to access the courts and legal aid – because we cannot enforce what putative rights we may have.
Whether it is the issue of fracking, or health privatization, or the Government's increasingly dictatorial methods of enacting policy, all these issues have become a civil rights struggle – one which requires the public to unite against their unrepresentative political masters.
Slowly, like the proverbial frog in a saucepan, Britain is sliding towards a dictatorial rule by the state, very much along the lines of that predicted by Aldous Huxley 50 years ago –
Only a large-scale popular movement toward decentralization and self-help can arrest the present tendency toward statism. A really efficient totalitarian state would be one in which the all-powerful executive of political bosses and their army of managers control a population of slaves who do not have to be coerced, because they love their servitude. To make them love it is the task assigned, in present-day totalitarian states, to ministries of propaganda, newspaper editors and schoolteachers.